Air pollution is a major problem in modern society, with many countries across the world having well over the recommended WHO limits, which are currently set at 10μg/m3 for fine particle material and 20μg/m3 for more coarse particles (1). Air pollution is comprised of a number of different pollutants, usually derived from the burning of fossil fuels and various industrial processes used for producing energy. Unfortunately, these waste products can be invisible and deadly, with links to Cardiovascular disease, respiratory illnesses such as Asthma, Depression, Alzheimers and Parkinsons.
To understand how air pollution can negatively impact health we must understand how it interacts with the body. Particulate Matter (PM) is usually unburnt hydrocarbons, that are small enough to be absorbed by the body, either through the skin or through the lungs, finding its way into the bloodstream. At this point it is able to travel all across the body, finding its way into any
organ in the body. It has been proven to reduce lung function, and has been found to increase the risk of cardiovascular and respiratory diseases. (2)
Polycyclic Aromatic Hydrocarbons (PAHs) are particularly deleterious for human health, these are a product of combustion and can absorb onto the Particulate matter along with heavy metals, such as lead, arsenic and mercury (3). PAHs when present within the body are converted into quinones which are highly oxidising and can find themselves entering cells and reaching the nucleus, where they can cause oxidative damage, which can damage not just the cell but also the DNA (4). Oxidative damage can correspond to rapid skin aging, allergic reactions, inflammatory responses, dermatitis, hair loss, psoriasis, acne and most worryingly skin cancer(5).
Particulate Matter is thought to be able to cross the blood brain barrier, where cell apoptosis can occur. It has been found that exposure to air pollution increases the amount of inflammatory mediators released by the body. Prolonged exposure can eventually cause an immune response where these mediators continue to be produced. These mediators can lead to the deposition of Aβ42 protein in the brain over time (6). This protein is well known to cause Alzheimers.
The implications of Air pollution have also been related to suicide rates, and increased instances of poor mental wellbeing, where instances of psychosis, depression, schizophrenia, bipolar disorder along with a host of other personality disorders (7). Over a thirty year period it was found that the estimated risk of suicide was 2% greater following days of high particulate pollution (8). Similar correlations were found with respect to emergency room visits for depression and substance abuse. IQ is also negatively impacted by air pollution with people finding average decreases in IQ of up to five points in highly polluted areas (9), this is particularly obvious for children and the elderly as these toxicants are thought to affect them more.
So what can you do to reduce the impacts on your body? Well, sadly reducing exposure to air pollution is practically impossible for the majority of people. However there are important steps that can be taken to mitigate reduce the impact these toxicants can have on your body. This includes regular exercise, and a high quality diet which would need to include plenty of antioxidants to counteract the impact of the oxidising species present in the body. Some people have also chosen to adopt Particle Masks as a method to reduce their exposure to toxicants in the air, however evidence for effectiveness is limited, and results between masks is highly variable. However, some research has suggested that a good fitting particle mask with effective activated carbon linings can reduce the intake of PM matter and black carbon up to PM0.3 (10,11).
If you are still concerned, you should consider your own micro-climate. An investment in a number of plants that are good for improving air quality such as the Aloe family can dramatically improve air quality within your home or workplace. Other options include switching from the systems that are responsible for these emissions, this means swapping the combustion car for electric, installing solar panels and adopting a diet more closely resembling a vegetarians. This would reduce the strain on the land from agriculture, minimise energy consumption from the energy infrastructure and consequently reduce fossil emissions. To really give your actions weight it may be a good idea to write to your local politician and query current air quality regulations.